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Isaac Newton [Hardcover]

James Gleick
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 2003
James Gleick has long been fascinated by the making of science—how ideas order visible appearances, how equations can give meaning to molecular and stellar phenomena, how theories can transform what we see. In Chaos, he chronicled the emergence of a new way of looking at dynamic systems; in Genius, he portrayed the wondrous dimensions of Richard Feynman’s mind. Now, in Isaac Newton, he gives us the story of the scientist who, above all others, embodied humanity’s quest to unveil the hidden forces that constitute the physical world.

In this original, sweeping, and intimate biography, Gleick moves between a comprehensive historical portrait and a dramatic focus on Newton’s significant letters and unpublished notebooks to illuminate the real importance of his work in physics, in optics, and in calculus. He makes us see the old intuitive, alchemical universe out of which Newton’s mathematics first arose and shows us how Newton’s ideas have altered all forms of understanding from history to philosophy. And he gives us a moving account of the conflicting impulses that pulled at this man’s heart: his quiet longings, his rage, his secrecy, the extraordinary subtleties of a personality that were mirrored in the invisible forces he first identified as the building blocks of science. More than biography, more than history, more than science, Isaac Newton tells us how, through the mind of one man, we have come to know our place in the cosmos.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books (May 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0965738000
  • ISBN-13: 978-0965738002
  • ASIN: 0375422331
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 13.9 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 767,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

It is a brave writer who tackles a biography of the world famous pioneer mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton and James Gleick has acquitted himself superbly well in his new bookIsaac Newton. Accolades to Newton were piling up even during his early lifetime in the 17th century when such fame was usually confined to royalty, popes and archbishops and certainly not to ordinary mortals born in 1642 of yeomen stock in deepest rural England. According to Gleick, Newton was the first person whose attainment "lay in the realm of the mind" to have a state funeral and be buried in Westminster Abbey. A Latin inscription proclaimed his "strength of mind almost divine" with "mathematical principles peculiarly his own" and declared that "mortals rejoice that there has existed so great an ornament of the human race"--not bad for a farm boy from Lincolnshire.

Sensibly, Gleick, a well-known American science writer and author of the acclaimed Chaos, focuses a great deal on how such a transformation could happen to anyone with such humble beginnings at that time in British history. There is no doubt Newton's innate talent and genius but he was also lucky in that he had excellent schooling and through the intervention of a relative he was able to go to the University of Cambridge and went on to stay there most of his professional life. His mother supplied him with "a chamber pot; a notebook of 140 blank pages... a quart bottle and ink to fill it, candles for many long nights, and a lock for his desk". Try sending your child to university so equipped today.

Of course the critical achievements of Newton's life were in his scientific achievements and here is the real problem: how to explain them for the general reader when even academic mathematicians today find much of the detail of Newton's work hard to comprehend. This is largely because Newton did not have today's familiar technical language or standard units of measurement available to him; he really was exploring terra incognita and feeling his way. But this is exactly what Gleick manages to get over so well and there is so much more. Aside from it being an eminently accessible biography, illustrations, extensive notes, bibliography and index make this an invaluable source for anyone who wants to enter the wonderful and arcane world of Sir Isaac Newton. --Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'The book has the magic of a wonderful laboratory experiment…A masterpiece of clarity – so difficult to write, so easy to read.' Michael Holroyd

'A fresh and brilliant portrait of his personality and life, the people who mattered to him, the influences which played on him, and the contexts of his achievements.' Oliver Sacks

'After reading Jim Gleick's beautifully written and intimate portrait of Newton, I felt as is I'd spent an evening by the fire with that complex and troubled genius.' Alan Lightman

'It's beautifully paced and very stylishly written: compact, atmospheric, elegant. It offers a brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination' Richard Holmes

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A universal mind 12 July 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
With almost poetic grace, Gleick portrays the life and thinking of history's most expansive mind. Works on Newton aren't as common as might be expected. The task of addressing such a monumental mentality is formidable, to say the least. Only the most ambitious or analytical could attempt it. Gleick's effort encompasses the major facets of Newton's life, including his academic, political and religious aspects. He avoids the modern approach of delving into Newton's psyche or recapitulating three centuries of scholarly disputation. Even the "falling apple" story is redrawn as Newton's realisation that apparent size compared with distance expressed a relationship needing explanation. The result is a clean, unobstructed view of a complex man - and his legacy.
From meagre beginnings Newton carved an expansive niche in European scholarship. His skills, noted early, brought him a Cambridge appointment at 27. Already showing great promise, he was a reluctant publisher. He sequestered himself in his rooms, later in a small cottage. He'd lived almost alone during his childhood, but his curiosity led him in many directions. The prism experiments, breaking sunlight with a prism, began his long career in what is now deemed "physics". Light's properties were the subject of great dispute, with Newton holding to emitted particles. Waves seemed to adhere to the Cartesian "vortices" which Newton found suspect. Playing with mirrors and lenses led to the reflecting telescope widely used today. Thinking about the heavenly bodies he observed led, of course, to his idea of gravitational attraction. Not a popular idea then, since such forces were disdained.
It's difficult to assess whether his delving into the facts of nature led to his personal isolation, or the reverse holds.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Newton without calculus or continuity 18 May 2004
Format:Hardcover
An excellent read for those interested in the person of Newton. Gleick does an excellent job of presenting the story of his life within the context of the wider scientific and philosophical world at the time.Those expecting a good deal of mathematics will be disapointed but lets face it there's plenty of maths and history of maths around! Those readers who really insist on looking more closely at this aspect of his work could do what I did and furnish themselves with a copy Motte's translation of Principia.
My only cricism of the work would be the extensive section of notes - all necessary I agree but many, other than simple references, could have been included in the main body of the text. I found it quite irritating at times having to flick back and forth and this spoilt the continuity somewhat.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Issac Newton 21 Mar 2005
By DDS VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
Isaac Newton is argueably one of the most important figures in physics. Living during the times of the scientific revolution where science was distancing itself from art, Newton is credited with playing a major part in creating and documenting the new scientific theories with his book Principia Mathematica. Surprisingly however there are few biographies of this important father of science available and James Gleick fills the gap with an account that is both incredibly readable and informative.
This biography of Newton takes us from his birth as a son of an illiterate farm worker through to his death bed, when he said that if he had seen further than other men, it was only by standing on the shoulders of giants. This book not only summarises his life and his scientific achievements but also makes the distinction that he was not only the first of the followers of the new scientific method but also the last of the old, an alchemist, a wizard and a magician.
Gleick's telling of Newton's life is so well written that even if I did not have a passion for the subject it would have evoked one. Newton's discoveries and thoughts have had such an impact upon the world - he invented calculus, discovered gravity and even one of the first to divide light into the seven colours of the rainbow. Yet Newton was a lonely man, shunning friendships, fighting bitterly with the great men of his age and standing on the brink of madness. He was both a scientist and deeply religious. A great but a strange man. This book is the perfect, well written summary to a great life, however for more detail you may have to look else where, for the casual reader however this book is perfection.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Newton - a pioneer of western science 11 April 2010
By Dr. H. A. Jones TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Isaac Newton by James Gleick, HarperCollins 2003, 304 ff.

This is a highly readable biographical narrative about the most important `natural philosopher' of the day. The author is a journalist, so has no predilection to get into any high powered science or mathematics - the science is accessible, the mathematics non-existent. As the story opens - for all the factual content, it reads like a novel - Gleick sets the scene in late medieval England when Newton was born (on Christmas Day in 1642), just at the start of the English Civil War and a century before the start of the Industrial Revolution that was made possible by the discoveries of Newton and his contemporaries.

Gleick does very well to summarize the enormous number of achievements of this great man in a relatively short book - there are 70 pages of Notes and References at the end, as well as a comprehensive Index, so we have less than 200 pages of text. There are many quotations in the book from Newton's original papers. We learn of Newton's mathematical creations of binomial and infinite series in algebra, of his study of refraction of light, that Newton believed travelled mainly as `corpuscles' or particles, and of the study and mathematical representation of laws of motion and gravity for which he is probably best known. Newton invented the calculus, more or less simultaneously with the German philosopher and diplomat, Leibniz, and there were the almost inevitable squabbles over precedence.

But Gleik also tells us about Newton as a man: he gives us some idea of the issues over which he quarrelled with Robert Hooke, who was probably just as fine an experimental scientist but one who lacked the mathematical knowledge or rigour to follow through on his discoveries.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Book arrived quickly and in great condition. Very detailed account of Isaac Newton's life, including early life and all his achievements. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Kelly
3.0 out of 5 stars Hit or miss
To be fair, it is exactly what it is meant to be. However I found it to be dry and uninteresting, and it took quite a lot of effort to continue reading. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Adam Muir
4.0 out of 5 stars the story allows us to share how this most famous man thought
Well researched with complex concepts explained simply. The book made me feel like I was alongside Newton as he wrestled with some of the greatest questions of the time, like... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Geoff
4.0 out of 5 stars A Readable but Scholarly Account
A very readable but scholarly account of the life and achievements of Sir Isaac Newton. Writing a biography of one who was a misanthrope and near recluse for much of his life must... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Andy
4.0 out of 5 stars "for Newton ... there was no completeness, only a questing - dynamic,...
Some time ago now, having finished the passionate, inspiring, & fairly lengthy Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler, which ends its core element of biographical sketches with a brief... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Sebastian Palmer
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear, insightful, and easy to follow
Loved this book, well written, easy to follow, and made the life of Newton very enjoyable to read about. Read more
Published 14 months ago by D. Harrop
5.0 out of 5 stars "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said 'Let Newton be'...
At this time of the year, I select a few books about diverse subjects and re-read them with the hope that new insights will occur that I missed previously. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Robert Morris
5.0 out of 5 stars A great insight into a great Genius
Having read Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman I was confident that this book would be a good read, and it was. Read more
Published 22 months ago by StevieBee
5.0 out of 5 stars Isaac Newton explained
This book is an absolute pleasure. Highly readable, packed with fact but written in a style that transports the reader to the 17th century. Read more
Published on 23 Aug 2011 by Julia Bray
4.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of detail
Enjoyed this book ,loads of detail and you do feel you know Newton reasonably well after reading this. Read more
Published on 27 July 2011 by Alan600
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